The politics of the FBU dispute

Submitted by AWL on 22 February, 2003 - 6:07

In the last issue of Solidarity Chris Jones, former Merseyside FBU brigade chair and a member of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, looked at the background to the dispute. In this article he analyses the politics of the dispute. The article was written before the FBU suspended their strike action

A 'new' Labour was clearly in evidence in the FBU's dealings with councillors and in disputes in areas like Merseyside long before New Labour was elected nationally.

The local councillors who controlled the fire service at a local level had relative autonomy after the abolition of county councils and used this to pursue an agenda that excluded the FBU and drew ever closer to the chief officers. Just as the dispute of 1977/8 was prefigured in local disputes and an increasingly assertive rank and file, the 2002/3 dispute has been anticipated by the growth of employers offensives at a local level.

A call for opening the political fund to other parties was the direct result of local FBU experiences with New Labour. Resolution 101, carried in opposition to the executive at the 2001 annual conference, read:

'Conference notes with concern the continuing attacks on the fire service by Labour-controlled authorities. Therefore, conference agrees that the Fire Brigades Union political fund will in future be used to support candidates and organisations whose policies are supportive of the policies and principles of this union. This may include candidates and organisations who stand in opposition to New Labour so long as they uphold policies and principles in line with those of the Fire Brigades Union.

'When considering any request for assistance the Fire Brigades Union and regional committees should carefully examine the policies and record of all such individuals and organisations.

'Conference instructs the executive council to prepare any necessary subsequent rule changes for annual conference 2002.'

The executive did not act on the 2001 resolution and campaigned to reverse it at the 2002 annual conference that also endorsed the pay campaign. There is a clear relationship between the pressure on the executive to break from exclusive links to Labour and the top-down militancy over pay. The pay campaign took the heat off the failure to act on links to Labour.

In the light of the dispute there is no doubt that the issue will return to conference this year and that the FBU will review its links with Labour amidst calls for both disaffiliation and democratisation of the political fund. The 2003 conference is unlikely to take place when it is due in May - it will probably be postponed until after the current dispute - but, whenever it comes, the question of the trade unions' political alliance with Labour will come under the spotlight.

The strain between in relations with the Labour Party is not restricted to the FBU and it signifies the erosion of the historic and political compromise that the Labour Party represented. The FBU dispute raises the possibility of firefighters leading a campaign throughout the trade union and Labour conference season attacking New Labour for its role in the dispute and calling for other union members to join with them in calling for the democratising of the political fund.

Historically Labour held out the prospect of workers being able to elect representatives to parliament and to form a government. The political compromise enshrined by Labour was that the empire and the constitutional arrangements of the UK state would be left largely untouched. Labour made no serious calls for abolishing the monarchy or constitutional reform. In return the establishment, the ruling class of the empire, would allow Labour to compete for election and form governments when able to do so.

Labour set out to be a responsible mainstream party, loyal to the rules of the game. In effect it became the "second 11" for the establishment, called in to head off serious political discontent or revolt. Social and economic reform became Labour's sole agenda, while political reforms were either quietly dropped or remained token commitments, never central to Labour's activity. It is only under New Labour that constitutional reform has returned to the agenda. In a Liberal guise, constitutional reform returned to form part of New Labour's policy at the very point when New Labour was unable to deliver significant social and economic reform.

This compromise worked while Labour could deliver on its social and economic programme, but in the 1970s government initiatives undermined this relationship. The social contract and In place of strife broke the consensus and radicalised a significant layer of workers. Rocked by defeat, Labour in the 1980s debated whether to make serious commitments and stick to them - a position identified with Tony Benn - or to reduce commitments down to what could be delivered - a position later identified with Tony Blair and New Labour. The revision of policy in New Labour was associated with a distancing from the trade unions.

The FBU experienced the practical effects of the withdrawal of Labour from the former alliance. The FBU was forced to fight against Labour local politicians, many of whom they had helped to fund in running for office. For a second time in a quarter of a century the FBU was faced with a national dispute against a Labour government. In 1977, while many FBU members were disenchanted with Labour, union activists became engaged in the fight to strengthen the left inside the Labour Party in the 1980s.

In 2003 this option is no longer on offer, as there is no viable Labour left opposition to the Blair government or to New Labour policies within the party. The structure of New Labour has been gradually closed off from union influence at all levels. In short the FBU and the trade union movement no longer have a party to represent their interests in parliament and beyond.

Andy Gilchrist grappled with this point in his presentation to the Socialist Campaign Group back in November 2002. He argued that the unions needed to remove New Labour and replace it with 'real' Labour. The genuineness of these sentiments cannot be doubted, but the lack of support he received following his statement was palpable and little has been heard from him on this topic since. It remains a significant weakness of the left of the trade unions that they find it difficult to openly break with Labour.

A question of leadership

It looks increasingly likely that the FBU leadership is prepared to settle for something like the 16% offered in July 2002, as long as it is not explicitly tied to acceptance of Bain. It is also likely that such a deal may retain the headline figures on pay but fail to retain the detail that made the deal initially so attractive to the FBU leadership, such as the promise of a new pay formula. There is still a real danger that the Government is intent on breaking the FBU and that it will insist on pay being linked to full acceptance of Bain. Before the first one-day action took place, there were strong rumours, encouraged by the FBU leadership, that the Government was preparing a legislative ban on further strikes. In those circumstances it will prove impossible for the FBU to accept a deal and the Government may impose it over the heads of the union leadership.

The FBU dispute raises questions of leadership in a number of distinct, but related ways. Primarily the working class now lacks a party of its own. The search is now on for a replacement. This cannot be achieved by a simple declaration of the type that Arthur Scargill made with the formation of the Socialist Labour Party, or that numerous left groups made when they became the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party.

A new party must develop from the organic layers of leadership within the working class. It will require a recomposition of the existing left and a revision and renewal of their politics. A new unity and a new politics can only be achieved by overcoming the historic differences that separate the Labour, communist and Trotskyist traditions. I would suggest that such a reformation should take place around the central idea that working class aspirations cannot be met within the political framework of the constitutional monarchy: the working class requires a democratic and republican state.

It will also require a significant break from Labour. Such a break will not occur without the maximum unity of the left outside of Labour. Unity of the left is now a central question. The Socialist Alliance is the best placed formation to lead in this process. It can only do so by raising its game. As it stands, the Socialist Alliance is no more than an electoral front and it is routinely bypassed by its component organisations when they intervene in issues such as the FBU dispute or the anti-war movement. Red Watch, the unofficial FBU news sheet, has been largely an SWP initiative, and the SA members inside the FBU have not caucused during the dispute.

The Socialist Alliance must make it an urgent priority to coordinate the work of its members through trade union fractions, acting as the core of broader left groupings. The Socialist Alliance needs to develop as a viable force around which a party could form. As an urgent priority the Socialist Alliance needs its own press and paper.
The Socialist Alliance should commit itself to the aim of forging a new workers' party, and engage with as many other left groups as possible to broaden the alliance beyond its present supporters.

Secondly the FBU dispute raises the question of leadership within the trade unions and the relationship of that leadership to politics. The unions are faced with a New Labour government that has pursued policies of privatisation in the public sector and has refused to repeal the anti-trade union legislation passed during the previous Tory administrations.

Trade unionists continue to finance New Labour despite recent reductions in contributions from several major unions. The trade union leadership must now be prepared to break its ties with Labour. Union members must force the union leadership to make every penny paid out in political contributions conditional on support for the aims and aspirations of union members.

The current crop of 'awkward squad' trade union leaders remains a very mixed bunch. Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka stand out as principled left leaders who will stand opposed to New Labour. Andy Gilchrist has not been able to make that break in a clear way during the FBU dispute and this has hindered his leadership, especially following his intervention at the Socialist Campaign Group meeting in Manchester. The role of left leaders will, however, depend on more than their overt political leanings.

The FBU may now be faced with a period of struggle at a national level of the same type that occurred locally in the 1990s. If the dispute is resolved with an accommodation on pay and no direct link to Bain, then the employers are likely to keep coming and the FBU will have to defend itself against a series of coordinated assaults. If the Government imposes a settlement, then the FBU will be forced to fight a rearguard action over many months, perhaps years, which will involve continuing calls for industrial action.

In both cases an active membership and an effective leadership at all levels of the union will be needed. No matter how good the leadership is, without the support of an effective rank and file its action is likely to fail. The membership will need to develop a capacity for action on the basis of the early shop stewards' movement - official if we can, unofficial if we must. The question of rank and file organisation is not separate from the capacity of existing left leaders to fight: it is fundamental to their ability to act.

Just as the 1984-85 miners' strike heralded the final breaking up of the last traditional bastion of the industrial strength of Labour, so the FBU strikes herald the end of the old political Labour. It may not happen immediately, but the die has been cast.

The working class now needs a new political party to represent it. Labour has dropped the crown. The question is, who can pick it up?

Solidarity Conference for the FBU

Saturday 1st March 2003

Camden Centre, Bidborough Street, London


Speakers include:

  • Andy Gilchrist
  • Mark Serwotka (General Secretary of PCS - civil servants union)
  • John Cryer MP
    • FBU branches have been asked to send delegates but other members are welcome.
    • There is no charge for FBU members. Non-FBU members will be charged £5.
    • Each branch of other trade unions is asked to try to bring five delegates.

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